The joy of George Shaw’s miserable paintings of a Coventry council estate

The joy of George Shaw’s miserable paintings of a Coventry council estate

Laura Gascoigne for The Spectator

All good narrative painting contains an element of allegory, but most artists don’t go looking for it on a Coventry council estate — unless, that is, they happen to come from there.

Since starting his Scenes from the Passion series while at the Royal College in the 1990s, George Shaw has been painting the Tile Hill estate where he grew up. In 20 years he has produced 200 images of the same square mile, revisiting the pubs, library and short cut to the shops of his youth, winkling out the Englishness of the place while lamenting the decline of its fabric and post-war community spirit.

Tile Hill is Shaw’s Cookham, imbued by this former Catholic schoolboy with an English mysticism more covert and far less cosy than Spencer’s. Unlike Spencer’s densely populated Cookham, Shaw’s Tile Hill appears deserted. There are no figures in his paintings, only signs of their passing. Litter caught in winter bushes by the roadside, graffiti on the boarded-up entrance to a former library, a slash of red paint scarring a tree in suburban woodland: his locations often have the look of a crime scene where a white tent might go up at any moment and forensic teams start combing the undergrowth.

The only figure in Shaw’s new Holburne Gallery show is a self-portrait, a back view of the artist pissing against a tree titled, with typical humour, ‘The Call of Nature’ (2015–16). Shaw has a working-class horror of pretentiousness: the slashed tree painting ‘Every Brush Stroke Is Torn Out Of my Body ‘(2015–16) is called after a line delivered by Tony Hancock in The Rebel. The title seems particularly absurd when applied to a canvas meticulously painted with Shaw’s usual hobbyists’ Humbrol paint. It’s a medium that gives his smaller woodland scenes, like ‘The Path Behind the Shops’ (2003), the feel of 15th-century manuscript illuminations — though that comparison comes unstuck when the subject is a 1950s pub with pretensions to art deco. Much of the show seems to be an elegy to Tile Hill’s locals, a pictorial pub crawl around the boozers of Shaw’s youth, or what’s left of them — The Hawthorne Tree roofless, The New Star flattened, a former watering hole collecting water.

A true Brit, Shaw delights in miserable weather: puddles everywhere, pub lights reflected as damp squibs in wet tarmac. The mists of memory, in his case, have a high humidity ratio. The only sunlight here shines on a flag of St George fluttering from a flagpole, but nationalism is not part of Shaw’s Englishness: the picture’s title, ‘Someone Else’s House’ (2018), lets us know that the blue skies of Brexit are someone else’s dream.

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‘Scenes from the Passion: The Hawthorne Tree’, 2001, by George Shaw